Friday, May 4, 2012

On The Death of Lear, King of Britain

The last pages of King Lear are amazing. Amid the usual and necessary tying-up-of-plot-threads and suddenly soaring body count, Shakespeare gives Lear a moving final scene. The old man's brief speeches before his death contain some of the best lines to come from Bill's pen:

Howl, howl, howl, howl! O, you are men of stones:
Had I your tongues and eyes, I'ld use them so
That heaven's vault should crack. She's gone for ever!
I know when one is dead, and when one lives;
She's dead as earth.


Cordelia, Cordelia! stay a little. Ha!
What is't thou say'st? Her voice was ever soft,
Gentle, and low, an excellent thing in woman.
I kill'd the slave that was a-hanging thee.


And my poor fool is hang'd! No, no, no life!
Why should a dog, a horse, a rat, have life,
And thou no breath at all? Thou'lt come no more,
Never, never, never, never, never!
Pray you, undo this button: thank you, sir.
Do you see this? Look on her, look, her lips,
Look there, look there!


Before Cordelia's murder, Lear was telling her about how peaceful it would be to spend the rest of their days together in prison; they'd be mere observers of the foul politics of life, and watch safely as tyrants fought and died. The irony of course is that Lear's petulant fit of anger at Cordelia (in Act 1, Scene 1) has brought all of this about. Alas, poor fools. Poor all of us. Howl, howl, howl, howl! Thou'lt come no more.

Lear only becomes a sympathetic character when he is broken down by betrayals, madness and captivity. He begins the play--and we are told that he has always been thus--as a prideful, arrogant man for whom love is a form of commerce, a system of obligation with his love being the prize purchased by others. He holds the showings of worship more important than actual love and rewards them accordingly; his pride is pricked by Cordelia's honest, open-eyed form of love (as opposed to worship) and he strips her of inheritance and his affection. His other daughters, Goneril and Regan, have no patience for him. Once Lear's passed to them his property and his royal power, he is of no use to his daughters and they treat him like an old interfering fool because there was never any love between them, only shows of worship and commerce. But we all know that premise. Lear is an ass, and once he is no longer the monarch, people feel free to abuse him as an ass.

Then Shakespeare transforms the ass into an angel, and when, in that last scene with Cordelia before her death, Lear promises her a future of safe comfort with him in prison, we mark his sweetness and genuine reciprocal love for the only daughter who ever loved him. He's learned his lesson, I guess.

Cordelia is a prop, and her death fails to move us except in that it moves Lear, back into madness and tears, and then into death from a broken heart. And that's tragedy for you: Lear learns his lesson, but too late, too late. Had Shakespeare not shown us Lear's epiphany, his death would not be tragic; every eye in the house would be dry when the old king falls to the stage, still clutching his daughter's corpse. I don't know what that says about Shakespeare, or about us. It is difficult to pity the pitiless, and Lear only by slow turns takes his attention from the slights done to his pride and begins to see that others might have it worse in this life.

You'll notice the same character arc in Gloucester's story. One of Shakespeare's formal strengths was his use of parallel plots. The blinding of Gloucester was a clever move on Shakespeare's part; Lear is also blind, though his eyes can see. Don't forget to compare and contrast Gloucester's fictional fall over the Dover cliffs with Lear's fall from power; in each case you'll notice in passing that a devoted follower (in disguise because he's been wrongly exiled) comforts the fallen man. It was also clever to have the children of Lear all women, while Gloucester has two sons. We're not allowed to pin betrayal and selfishness on the sex of the betrayer. King Lear is a complex little work, but I've thought enough about it for now.

Next up: Hadji Murad from our friend Lev Tolstoy.

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